There are two reasons for the garment industry in Bangladesh to flourish - cheap labor and a favorable climate that is conducive to producing unique quality of fabric. While climate is what nature has bestowed on the deltaic nation, cheap labor has been a consequence of labor exploitation at the globalized market place. Working for wages as low as Rs 10-15 per hour, some ten million impoverished men, women and children toil under inhuman conditions within some 5,000 garment factories in the ‘unlivable city’ of Dhaka to keep the country’s political economy afloat. While 10 per cent of parliamentarians are factory owners, as many as half have some financial interest in the garment industry.
The irony is that while the leaders of the country have worked overtime to protect the industry that fetches 80 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange, they have exhibited uncanny insensitivity towards those upon whose tireless work their own well-being depends. The net result is that a vast pool of skilled and semi-skilled workforce has become victims of political apathy and economic violence. Song of the Shirt is a spine chilling account of the faceless millions who have remained trapped in the cycle of industrialization, de-industrialization and re-industrialization that the unsuspecting weavers of Bengal have gone through. Delving into historical narratives, Jeremy Seabrook brings to light Britain’s coercive trade policy which while protecting textile factories in Lancashire had reduced the weavers of Bengal to abject misery.
The misery has persisted nonetheless; the post-independence reindustrialization has only been a caricature of peoples’ longing for sufficiency and security. Unlike the textile works of Lancashire who could retreat into their traditional past following the closure of textile mills, the workforce in Dhaka has only watery misery of floods and cyclones to fall back upon. If cheap labor appears anywhere else in the world, the work flying away will force their descent into destitution. With the trade unions having been systematically weakened, collective power to protect the workforce from economic violence doesn’t exist.
Travelling through the cities, into the factories and across the lives of people who weave the economy of Bangladesh, Seabrook provides painful details of their shattered present and an equally uncertain future. Millions who migrate to escape the endless cycle of floods and cyclone soon find themselves captive inside the flammable buildings in the apparel capital. It is a tragic irony that in the last decade, at least 500 workers, mostly women, have been claimed by fire accidents. Those who escape water get greeted by fire! Song of the Shirt is a poignant tale of hopeless illusion and unending exploitation which sustains itself on an imagined edifice of affluence amidst overcrowding, violence and degraded living conditions.
Written with passion and anguish, Song of the Shirt is a painstaking work that narrates the untold story of a society that has been in perpetual transition for last two hundred years. Rich in detail, Jeremy Seabrook leaves the reader with moral predicament as well as an uncomfortable question: will the market become cosmos, leaving no alternative other than being sucked into its constantly expanding frontier?
The Song of the Shirt
by Jeremy Seabrook
Navayana, New Delhi
Extent: 288, Price: Rs 495